toronto shelters

Advocates say Toronto shelters are full as temperatures plunge to deadly levels

Advocates for people struggling with homelessness are raising the alarm on a deadly situation facing Toronto.

As the city plunges into a deep freeze, people living in precarious housing situations are being left, literally, out in the cold.

"It was -20C this morning, people can't access shelter beds and the warming centres weren't open. Even with warming centres opening tonight, the City's plan is wholly inadequate," states a release issued Friday from the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN).

On Jan. 6, the adult emergency shelter system was at 97 per cent capacity, and the family sector at 99 per cent capacity and there were 29 shelters classified as being an active COVID-19 outbreak. Residents lacked access to proper masks, and had low vaccination rates.

SHJN says it issued numerous warnings, as early as October in its winter plan and again on Dec. 14 in response to the surge in homeless deaths.

"Even though unhoused people are at increased weather-related risk of injury at this temperature and especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the City has not opened sufficient beds," says Lorraine Lam of SHJN.

In addition, the SHJN says the shelter system has collapsed.

"Shelters are full, staffing and supports are weakened and preparations for another COVID surge have proven inadequate. Shelters must be a place of refuge and safety for anyone in need and at this point they are not," says Greg Cook of the SHJN Steering Committee.

The City of Toronto did release a winter plan in October, saying they would expand capacity for at least 200 people. Over the past five years, the city has added and maintained new capacity.

"As a result, the number of beds currently available for individuals or couples experiencing homelessness is the highest in five years," the city stated in a release.

But SHJN says that is not nearly enough.

"We need at least 2,250 beds to bring the shelter system to what the City says a reasonable level," says A.J. Withers, lead author of SHJN's Emergency Winter and Shelter Support and Infrastructure Plan.

The city also needs to update the current cold weather alert system to open more shelter spaces during cold, freezing rain and excessive snowfalls.

"I've seen serious health impacts when the temperature is warmer than -15 degrees, when the City opens warming centres," says Lam.

Lead photo by

Jeremy Gilbert

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